DOA RIAs: Curl, OpenLaszlo and Web 2.0 Noir

Over on his ZDnet column Universal Desktop Ryan Stewart, who describes himself as a Rich Internet Application mountaineer, makes his annual predictions about where the Web is going. Prediction number seven caught my eye:

7. The days of smaller RIA technologies are numbered. I hate to say it but I think technologies like OpenLaszlo and Curl will continue to gain traction in some niches but won’t see widespread adoption. Those companies will still bring revenue but Microsoft and Adobe are pushing too hard and putting too many features into their runtimes for the smaller companies to keep up.

I hate to say it but I think he’s right1.

Watching RIA trends play out is a bit like watching a Film Noir movie (DOA comes to mind), where the good guys don’t win and the bad guys prosper– but not because of any particular genius on their part, merely because of inexorable fate.

I observe this particular web-noir movie from the perspective of an extra actually on the screen. I play a guy cut down by a stray bullet for the crime of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. For I was manager of information architecture at Curl from April 2000 until being laid off along with most of the engineering staff in April 2002, and I was the sole doc guy on the OpenLaszlo project from April 2003 until being laid off November 2007 as Laszlo Systems gave a quarter of its staff the axe.

Below the fold, a few brief observations on the Web 2.0 drowning pool. Said observations are undoubtedly greatly corrupted by time and rationalization, so take them with whatever quantity of salt you like. I’m just recording them for my own record.

(1)Note: although Stewart now works for Adobe, he’s always been fair-minded about competing technologies. I don’t see him as a shill.

UPDATE: edited a few sentences for clarity & one new comment at the end, in response to private reactions to this entry.

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The Legend of OpenLaszlo Legals

I work for Laszlo Systems, Inc.., on OpenLaszlo, “the premier open-source platform for rich internet applications.” For the last year I’ve been working on the Legals project, which is a re-implementation of the entire platform — compiler, doctools, runtime-specific kernels, common core runtime libraries, you name it, while keeping APIs intact– in order to support compilation of source applications in our LZX language to arbitrary runtimes, starting with Flash and DHTML, but with SVG and Java on the horizon. This undertaking has been compared to the magician’s trick of pulling the tablecloth out from under the place settings — while dinner is being served.

Over the last calendar year, within the small but growing world of web application developers, the Legals project has gained increasing attention. Technorati shows that bloggers in China, Russia, France, Germany, Spain, Brazil, and elsewhere are paying close attention to our every move.

Amusingly enough, these very sharp developers have grasped the essential idea of the project, but have been bewildered by the project name, “Legals”. Even within the company Laszlo Systems, those not invloved on the project have been intruigued by the moniker. Well, yesterday we essentially began our Beta program, and the Legals codename is being retired in favor of the much more normative (and bland) “OpenLaszlo 4 Beta Release 1.”

Below the fold you’ll find a little story I wrote for internal consuption at Laszlo about how the code name “Legals” came to be. If you like geek arcana, I think you’ll like this. Some tidbits for context: Everbody mentioned is a hardcore developer, except for Amy, the erstwhile program manager, and me, the technical writer. David is the CTO and founder of the company, our big cheese. Max is also a founder of the company. Oliver is the original designer of the LZX language. (The OpenLaszlo website can tell you more about all these people.) I’ll only add that I’ve been in this business since 1980, and the people mentioned below the fold are the smartest developers I’ve ever worked with. Finally, to set context, I might admit that a year ago our company’s financial situation was, shall we say, not especially propitious. Since then we’ve put millions in the bank and things are really looking up. But a year ago, things were more scary.

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OpenLaszlo to Java Mobile

OpenLaszlo is a platform for making Rich Internet Applications. The “production” version of OL (presently at release 3.3, I believe) allows you to compile to (Flash) swf7 or swf 8. OpenLaszlo version 4.0, project name “Legals”, will support, in addition, compilation to DHTML (aka “Ajax”). Legals is in “pre-beta”; an official Beta program will be announced soon. To see how far along the project is, you can go to the OpenLaszlo site and play with a variety of demos that run pretty much equally well in either Flash or Ajax. Sometime next year, probably in the spring, OL version 4.something will support Flash 9.

Now here comes an announcement of Project Orbit from Sun Mircosystems, to compile OpenLaszlo apps to Java Mobile Edition. Java ME runs on *billions* of devices, notably cell phones.

I work for Laszlo Systems, Inc, the creator and main supporter of OpenLaszlo. I’m responsible for all the OL documentation. It’s a good job. It’s cool to see the whole idea of “write once run everywhere” really starting to become real. Flash 9 which is based on the next version of ECMAscript/JavaScript, is different enough from earlier versions of Flash that it really constitutes a separate runtime. For those of you keeping score, that means that OL has active projects underway to support four distinct runtimes: Flash 7/8, Flash 9, DHTML (Ajax), and Java. Yes, there will be locally distinct differences in some applicaitons depending on the target runtime. But in general, OpenLaszlo applications truly are runtime-agnostic.

It’s also fun see the OL community growing and becoming real. There are now several developers who have “commit” priveliges to the code base who do not work for Laszlo Systems — including developers from Europe and Japan.

Note that OL is developed completely in the open. Anybody can sign up for the mailing lists on which we discuss architecture and implementation. The “nightly build,” which incorporates each successive day’s work, is avaible for free download. In other words, even though “Legals”, our Ajax port, is not yet in an official Beta program, you can still get your hands on the code if you’re the kind of person who likes to read code to see what’s going on.

Through Keanu, Darkly

I saw A Scanner Darkly the other night in a giant, un-airconditioned, run down, smelly theatre in Burlingame, California. It was affected, disaffecting, funny, intriguiing, and depressing. And that was just the theatre. Wait ’til you hear about the movie.

Well I’m an ostensibly technoparanoid guy and my little corner of Wetmachine is an ostensibly technoparanoid site, and A Scanner Darkly is a Philip K. Dick story, right? And PKD is the patron saint of technoparanoaics, right? So, naturally. . . um. . . whatever. Or in other words, ergo. . . kumquats. Hey, are those aphids crawling out of you? What was I saying? I think I was going to say something about the movie, but, I mean, what do we really know about reality, anyway? (Other than that, y’know, giant, smelly run-down theatres smell a lot smellier when the air conditioning isn’t working. (I mean, they do, don’t they? Don’t you agree? When it’s all hot and you think you’re going to suffocate in a nearly empty hall the size of a NASA hangar? (And will you kindly keep those aphids to yourself?))).

Inside: Keanu as Bogart and Plank’s Constant

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Keep an eye out for Jerry, please

My friend and former coworker at Laszlo Systems, Jerry Tang, has been missing since the end of November, last seen in his home city of San Francisco. Jerry, a father of two young children, has a seizure disorder and is believed to be without his medications. He has lived in Philadelphia and in Framingham, MA.

More information, including what to do if you see Jerry, can be found here.

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Get yer Laszlo Mail account

Sign up here for a free Laszlo Mail account.

I remember the first time I heard of Hotmail. About fifteen years ago a friend of mine mentioned something about her “hotmail account”. This person was known to have a bemused, anthropological, Alfred Kinsey-like interest in social conventions related to sex and sexuality– I remember her photos from the “Museum of Sex” in Amsterdam–so when she mentioned “hotmail” I assumed it was some kind of vaguely kinky service that she used for that part of her life.

In the years since then, web mail has become ubiquitous. Everybody has a hotmail account or a yahoo mail account, or, recently, a gmail account. (I have a yahoo account that I use for this-and-that; my wife lives by her Hotmail account.) Is there a person on earth who doesn’t have a webmail account, or several of them? So why is Laszlo Systems, my employer, introducing Laszlo Mail today? Aren’t we a little late to the party?

The answer to that question, presumably, is that “Laszlo Mail is better”.

If you’re like me, you use your web mail account as a backup. My main mail accounts are at; I usually use the Apple Macintosh mail client to read them (as well as my mail at However, if I happen to find myself someplace where I have access to the Internet and I don’t happen to have my Mac with me, I can check my wetmachine mail using the mail client provided by the ISP that hosts wetmachine, I can use Outlook Express to check my Laszlosystems mail, and of course I can read my Yahoo mail the usual way. What these web mal clients have in common is that, relative to the Mac mail client, they suck. Of course, it’s great that I can check my mail from anywhere. That truly is a revolutionary capability, when you think about it. But the user experience — composing, previewing, spellcheckng, managing folders– sucks.

Laszlo Mail does not suck. I’m considering switching to it as my default mail reader on my Mac. Go get yourself an account and see what you think.

Also, and this is the cool part, Laszlo Mail is built using OpenLaszlo, a free, open source platform for making rich internet applications.

Croquet and OpenLaszlo: Plans for World Domination

Howard Stearns’s post, below, about How Croquet will Take Over the Universe (Bwah-hah-hah) got me thinking about OpenLaszlo and our own plans to take over the, um, er, well, our plans for success.

Laszlo Systems, Inc, signs my paycheck, but 90% of what I do for that check is related to OpenLaszlo, the “Rich Internet Application” platform that is given away for free. Just as Howard suggests, Laszlo Systems makes its money by selling applications and services on top of the platform, not from selling the platform itself. Laszlo Mail is the first such product, and others are under development. The OpenLaszlo platform, which Laszlo Systems Inc subsidizes to the tune of several full-time developers and one full-time documentation guy, generates exactly zero dollars for the company.

Laszlo Systems, Inc, is a startup in which I have a relative pantload of stock options. So I want Laszlo Systems, Inc, to succeed, which means that Laszlo has to convince deep-pocketed customers to buy Laszlo applications. In order for Laszlo applications to be acceptable to potential customers, the customers must be convinced that the underlying technology is sound and that it will be around for the long haul. That implies that OpenLaszlo must be seen to be thriving. There must exist a rich ecology of corporations that have a financial interest in keeping OpenLaszlo healthy.

Trust is the substrate upon which the open source ecology can grow. The best way to ensure that trust, of course, it to make OpenLaszlo really, truly open; to make it abundantly clear to potential developers that Laszlo Systems is not self-dealing, not trying to control the platform for its own benefit.

Laszlo is the fourth startup I’ve worked at. I ain’t rich yet, and I ain’t getting any younger. So I want *this* to be the one we get right. Wetmachiners Howard, Gary and I all worked for, and got virtually incinerated by, Curl, which, like Laszlo and Croquet, developed a potentially web-transforming technology. Alas for us, Curl screwed the pooch, as they say; it pissed away all the opportunity that that technology could have given them (us) by messing up this fundamental process that Howard wrote about.

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Laszlo is Hiring

The company I work for, Laszlo Systems, has an opening for a software engineer to work on our Rich Internet Application (open source) platform.

I’ve been at Laszlo for two years and I like it a lot. Not only that, and call me a crack-head dreamer if you want to (go ahead! call me that!), but I really think Laszlo is going to transform the web. If you’re a hot-shot programmer you might want to check this out.

My boss has the details on the job.

Open Laszlo

Here’s a write-up lifted from the site of Oliver Steele., Laszlo’s chief software architect. (I’m the Laszlo “doc guy.”)

As of today, the Laszlo platform for building rich internet applications is open source. This includes everything: the server software, the client software, the examples, the documentation, the language — the whole platform. Like Mozilla, this is open source with a corporate sponsor; and like Mozilla, it’s honest-to-goodness open source — no dual licensing, no poison pill. It uses the Common Public License, listed on has the source distribution for our new release, LPS 2.2, which also includes support for SOAP and XML-RPC, and over 500 new pages of documentation. For developing Laszlo applications, as opposed to hacking on the source to the Laszlo compiler and runtime, I recommend the binary distribution instead, which comes with installers for MacOS, Linux, and Windows. (You don’t have to actually write any code to see some neat stuff in the standard installation.) If you want to see some examples of the kinds of applications you can write, take a look at the customer showcase, the demos, and at If you want to dive into the source code, look at Laszlo Explorer and the Developers Guide.

Today is part one: the source code is available, the license is free. Part two is to open up our development process, including our source repository and bug tracking systems, so that you don’t have to be at Laszlo Systems (the company) to see what’s going with Laszlo (the open source project). Currently we’re in send-mail-to-the-dev-list mode for questions, and send-us-a-patch mode for contributions — about on a par with some of my other open source projects, but we can use those corporate sponsorship $$ to do better.

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